Multi World Theories –From Descartes to New Age Spiritualism



We had previously briefly considered problems inherent to various types of theories of mind, chiefly interactive dualism and epiphenomenalism.  We will here try to broaden the approach to include all types of substance dualism including even things like the vaguer forms of spiritualism. Our concerns here are mind, spirit, the will, the soul, what ever deviation off the physicalist track is being entertained anywhere.  Now from the point of view presented previously, this is a pointless exercise; it is just as much a waste of time to attack these views as it is to try to advance them. They are after all just empty forms of verbal behavior. Just noises we encounter on occasion that seem to be comprehensible and even significant because they occur in what at least seem to be meaningful terms in a natural language. Since most forms have no  real empirical origin and thus no empirical resolution, except perhaps in the form of the sort of neuro- psychologising we have engaged in previously; it would seem that there isn’t much that can be done about them, nor should we be concerned about them.


            The problem is that these noises can be socially and politically important, and merit attention for this reason alone, and, perhaps more importantly, their persistence indicates something very important about the intellectual condition of those that take them seriously which probably includes most of the human race.   These people don’t understand the most basic implications of the most basic facts of our biological makeup. The sorts of beliefs of concern here can only survive if these implications are ignored or if we somehow are completely oblivious to them.  Now all moderately well educated people should have some basic understanding of the brain as a system that is responsible, at least to some degree, for experience and behavior. They should and probably do know that if you are brain dead then you are dead even though your other parts may be maintained artificially.  Don’t most people who are even modestly educated –say, through high school- understand this?  Perhaps they do, the popular media occasionally exposes them to this idea even if it’s not part of their formal education. (Recall the publicity around the case of Terry Schiavo.) But this level of knowledge is evidently not enough and we need something more to dispense with superstitious belief.


            Prominent modern physiologists (Eccles) and philosophers (Popper) have been interactive dualists and they knew a great deal about the brain. (Perhaps the only real reason for exhausting this topic is the recurrent popularity of the ideas among even the most sophisticated and knowledgeable twentieth century thinkers.) The problem then is not simply knowledge per se, it is something else, it is understanding. We need to understand what we know already. But what’s the problem with our current level of understanding? We have seen some hints to what else is needed in previous articles where basically it was suggested that since the brain is a complicated system, whatever is functionally integrated with the brain, or knows what the brain is doing must be similarly complicated and must somehow be able to understand or know the brain at the functional level. It is this failure to understand the brain as a system or more exactly, as a system of systems and to reference this understanding when “mind” questions come up that is the root cause of the problem. So let us develop our earlier ideas further.


            There are about 68,000 Betz cells in the motor cortex which drive 656 muscles in the body, about 100 cells per muscle. (Deutsch, op cit.)  Any well defined element of motor behavior is going to require the activity of probably hundreds of these neurons plus the supportive activity of other related cells and of the neurological regulatory and support systems. Thus any complicated pattern of behavior probably involves the active participation and coordination of thousands of cells in the motor and pre-motor cortical areas. So let us consider the lying problem again. The lie in “Stealing Horses- Mind & Volition” involves simply denying that you are a horse thief, saying no instead of yes, when the sheriff asks you about it. Now it is conceivable that someone could maintain that all the mind/will has to do in this case is to hit some higher order neuron or small set of neurons that generate this false “no” response instead of the true ”yes” answer.  We might in fact be able to locate specific cells somewhere in the brain with this sort of capability. This is a sort of minimalist theory of mind/will that requires only a very small miracle given the sensitivity of the neuron, only a small quantum mechanical level effect might be sufficient here.


            But what about “The dog ate my homework!” the paradigmatic falsehood presented by negligent school children? Perhaps the child has heard this excuse, remembers it and has learned how to repeat it and is only producing it after somehow deciding to lie about the missing assignment. The mind/ will might only have to activate a particular memory unit to produce this response then. Again the intrusion into physical world might be viewed as minimal.  But are we to assume that there are really no good creative, inventive liars in the world?  That no one ever made up a good story on the fly for purposes of deception? If they have, then interactive dualists have a very complicated problem to solve. They have to explain how the mind/will can locate and activate a large number of motor units in the brain to produce long, complicated elements of behavior. 


            Since the mind/will cannot know before the child learns a language what motor units must be used for a language, the mind/will has to learn how a particular language is generated by the brain, and not incidentally, by a particular individual’s brain. So the mind/will has to learn and know more about the brain than even the best current scientists do. It also has to have something resembling an information based system for acquiring and storing this knowledge. The mind can’t use propositional knowledge, for example, or we would have the knowledge of how the brain works already unless our minds were hiding it from us. The mind/will is itself then must be a complicated system of immaterial stuff whose true nature is unknown to us unless it somehow beats out a message using our neurons on what it really is or how it works. We can leave it to “theorists” who are so inclined to explain all this in detail – once they become embarrassed enough about the problems. 



            The problem with all mental dualisms is that just speculating about a mechanism for interfering in the brain, or hypothesizing about an immaterial effect associated with neurological operations is not enough. An information system like the brain can only be monitored, controlled or understood by another information system. We know this about information systems, to deny it would require a very novel and powerful theory that does not yet exist.  But if this other non-physical system is information based then it must have variable states to manifest this information and –depending on the theory of this other system- probably variable operations.  So mind stuff has to have bits and pieces somewhat analogous to the components of our electronic information systems even if we assume that it is only binary and that all mental information then can be represented by two state units and some associated operations. Is mind supposed to be binary, is it even digital in some sense or is it analogue?  An analogue mind we might imagine has something like standing waves to represent and store information; this could be a simple out for some versions of dualism- if they could somehow explain how these phenomenally identical waves can account for phenomenally different experiences.



The basic problem for all versions of dualism is that they require a mental system, mental stuff alone is not enough.  The effecting-effected system does not have to be the same type of system as the brain, but it still must be an information system, even if it is analogue.  This is a fundamental requirement if we are to account for the complexity and diversity of experience and behavior. Different behaviors and experiences require different mental states and exactly how is this accomplished –what is it that is variable? The mind/will must have at least some if not all of the fundamental capabilities of any information systems, including things like the ability to produce, transport, process and store information. These require the components, structures, and processes- the sort of non- homogeneity and diversity- necessary for the functioning of information systems. A single substance, undifferentiated mind “stuff” will not work. Mind then becomes a bigger problem than the brain and becomes unknowable except when it tells us things about itself which we have no way of understanding or evaluating.


            Consider the problems the mind/will must have with sensation. How is it that the mind/will generates or is even aware of the differences between the qualitative aspects of experience? Consider our experiences with strawberries; again, the simple fact is that the visual appearance of a strawberry is nothing at all like the taste of it. Assume that our previous analysis is correct, that the differences exist because the transduction processes generating these two experiences are different. Does the mind/will then have a chemical unit which is somehow different from the optical unit so that the two experiences can be so markedly different? If, on the other hand, the experiences are generated in the brain, then how is it that the mind/will produces or is aware of the differences between these two types of sensations with only the subtleties of neurological operations to work with? How does the mind/will know or how did it learn to produce or have visual sensations when Broadmann’s areas 17, 18, and 19 are active? How does it know or how did it learn to blur up the image when certain drugs are ingested?


            The difficulties associated with other types of beliefs are the problems of metaphysics in general combined in many cases with ignorance of science and more generally, the requirements of and for empirical justification. Thus astrology does not know or does not care that there are no known mechanisms by which the planets or distant stars can influence human behavior. It should be pointed out to enthusiasts of star charts that with the lack of empirical evidence their theories are magical. However, since they are evidently uninterested in doing even say statistical analysis on the characteristics they attribute to those born under a particular sign this may be a worthless exercise.  In general the superstitious have problems with rationality, problems that are sub-epistemological, which are probably more likely the concern of psychology than epistemology.


            There are other subsets of the epistemologically errant, those who believe they can find exactitude and certainty in ancient religious texts for example, or those who think they can deny well established scientific results like global warming. The phenomenon of religious faith and similar system of believe (macro-economic theories?)  present a complicated problem involving emotions, political and religious thought along with a lack of fundamental insights into the nature of language and knowledge. Those that have such insights perhaps have an obligation above all else to do what they can for these believers.



RCE 1/2012